A federal prosecutor told a jury Tuesday that Baltimore lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell had a two-decade-long relationship with a high-level marijuana trafficker that involved laundering millions of dollars in drug proceeds and evading law enforcement using advice gleaned from Ravenell’s work as a criminal defense attorney.
Ravenell used his law firm at the time, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, as a “bank” for the drug trafficker, Richard Byrd, so that Byrd’s drug money could appear “clean” enough to use for more legitimate purposes, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Ravenell’s long-awaited trial began with the government’s opening statement late Tuesday. Also on trial are Joshua R. Treem, another prominent Baltimore lawyer who previously represented Ravenell; and Sean F. Gordon, a private investigator who had worked with Ravenell.
Ravenell faces charges including racketeering, drug and money laundering conspiracy.
Jurors only heard from the government Tuesday. Defense opening statements are expected Wednesday morning.
Wise told jurors Tuesday that Ravenell met Byrd when he represented Byrd in a murder case in the 1990s. The two worked together to build Byrd’s drug empire over the next 20 years, the prosecution claims.
Ravenell advised Byrd to traffic in marijuana rather than other drugs that carried harsher criminal penalties, Wise said. Eventually, Byrd became a top marijuana distributor who brought the drug to the U.S. from Mexico and transported it to Baltimore, where it was distributed and sold along the East Cost.
Wise said the government’s evidence will show that Ravenell offered three skills for which he was paid: he taught Byrd how to evade law enforcement; he told Byrd how to launder drug money and laundered the money through Murphy, Falcon & Murphy; and he met with potential witnesses to take them “off the board,” or ensure they could not offer testimony against Byrd if they cooperated with law enforcement.
“As Ravenell represented clients in criminal cases, he learned how law enforcement had caught them,” Wise said. “Mr. Ravenell took that information and turned it around and sold it to Mr. Byrd.”
Wise referred to Murphy, Falcon & Murphy by the acronym “MFM” during his opening statement.
“Ravenell used MFM’s bank accounts over and over to wash Byrd’s money in order to conceal the fact that Byrd was the source of that money,” Wise said.
Wise also said that Ravenell advised Byrd on what types of businesses could best be used to launder money. Byrd used a concert promotion business, called Loc Marketing, to “clean” drug money and make it appear legitimate by mixing the illegal funds with cash brought in at concerts and events.
Ravenell is also accused of using Murphy, Falcon & Murphy to receive money he knew was drug proceeds, including from Loc Marketing, and launder it through the firm to make it appear legitimate.
The case against Ravenell came together when Byrd began cooperating with law enforcement while he was serving a 26-year federal prison sentence for running the drug trafficking operation, Wise said.
Byrd agreed to turn against Ravenell, Wise said, because Byrd felt Ravenell was not doing enough to protect a $2 million investment Byrd had made in the MGM National Harbor Casino. That investment, which was completed “off the books” because it involved drug money, was supposed to go toward supporting Byrd’s children, Wise said.
But when Byrd became dissatisfied with how the investment was being handled, he agreed to work with federal investigators.
By that time, Ravenell knew he was under investigation and had hired Treem. Treem traveled to Arizona, where Byrd was incarcerated, and tried to get Byrd to sign off on a statement that would protect Ravenell from prosecution, Wise said. Byrd wore eyeglasses equipped with audio and video recording devices into the meeting, which Gordon attended with Treem.
Both men were indicted on obstruction charges.
“This case is about lying, not lawyering, about breaking the law, not defending those who have broken the law,” Wise said. “That’s what the evidence will show these defendants did.”
The case is likely to involve a number of high-profile members of Baltimore’s legal community, in addition to Ravenell and Treem.
Wise on Tuesday read from a transcript of Treem’s meeting with Byrd in which Byrd suggested other lawyers with whom Ravenell had worked were also involved in the MGM investment and were now “riding off into the sunset” while Ravenell faced criminal charges.
Federal agents took the unusual step of raiding several law firms during their investigation into Ravenell, including Murphy, Falcon & Murphy and Brown, Goldstein & Levy, where Treem is a partner.
Ravenell, who now has his own firm, Ravenell Law, was a partner at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy during the years referenced in the indictment, 2009 to 2014. He has continued to practice law since being indicted.
A phone message left at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy was not immediately returned Tuesday evening.